The Bixby letter is a letter sent from the United States President Abraham Lincoln to a bereaved mother of five sons who were thought to have died while fighting for the Union in the American Civil War. The brief, consoling message was written in November 1864 to Lydia Bixby, a widow living in Boston, following a request from Massachusetts Governor John Albion Andrew. The text has been widely praised as one of Lincoln's finest works of writing alongside the Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural address.
Some controversy surrounds the recipient, subject, and authorship of the letter. Although her sons fought for the Union, Mrs. Bixby seems to have personally supported the Confederacy. Not all five sons died in battle, with records showing that three of them were still alive years after the war. Historians have long debated whether the text was penned by Lincoln himself or by his assistant private secretary, John Hay. These factors have scarcely affected the reputation of the letter, which remains in the highest regard of many critics. The letter was widely reprinted and the original is thought to be lost, yet this matter is frequently questioned as new copies are found and examined.
Lincoln's letter to Mrs. Bixby was printed by the Boston Evening Transcript on November 25, 1864, the same day it was delivered to her by the Adjutant General of Massachusetts, William Schouler. The following is the text of the letter as it appeared in the Transcript:
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.
I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,
In a report to Governor John A. Andrew, regarding the father of five sons serving in the war, the Adjutant General of Massachusetts, William Schouler, wrote that Lydia Bixby had five sons who had died fighting for the Union. Andrew sent the report to the U.S. War Department with an additional note requesting the president to honor the mother with a letter. The report found its way to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who delivered it along with the records of the five sons to President Lincoln at which point the letter was written.
The War Department incorrectly informed Lincoln about the fate of Mrs. Bixby's sons: Two had died in battle, the others eventually survived the war. It is unclear whether the errors in Mrs. Bixby's story were intentional, and why the War Department had failed to correct the report based on their own records. The actual fate of her sons was as follows:
- Pvt. Arthur Edward Bixby, Company C, Massachusetts 1st Heavy Artillery (served June 24, 1861 – May 28, 1862)
Absent without official leave. Mrs. Bixby claimed that he had joined underage and without permission, which led to a discharge order. He had already absented himself by the time the order arrived.
- Sgt. Charles N. Bixby, Company D, 20th Massachusetts (July 18, 1861 – May 3, 1863)
Killed near Fredericksburg, Virginia.
- Cpl. Henry C. Bixby, Company K, 32nd Massachusetts (1862 – 1864)
Captured in 1864, paroled, and honorably discharged that December. (Listed as killed at Gettysburg in Schouler's records.)
- Pvt. Oliver C. Bixby, Jr., Company E, 58th Massachusetts (February 26, 1864 – July 30, 1864)
Killed near Petersburg.
- Cpl. George A. Bixby, Company H, 25th Massachusetts (September 17, 1861 – July 7, 1864)
Captured at Petersburg. Later army pension records showed that he was held prisoner and may have deserted to the enemy. He presumably enlisted under the name "George Way"; however, this and his final fate are not clear.
Bixby herself has been criticized as perhaps being a poor model of a grieving Union mother. Lydia (Parker) Bixby, by some reports, had moved to Boston from Richmond, Virginia, yet continued sympathizing with the South as a Copperhead. Contemporaries described her as a madam and "untrustworthy and as bad as she could be". The original Schouler report might have been constructed with insufficient fact checking of her claims, which she could have exaggerated in hopes of financial compensation. One of her great-grandsons repeated his father's story that she angrily destroyed Lincoln's letter after receiving it. However, it is also possible that she was innocently unaware that three of her sons had not died (Henry, for example, was released from a Confederate prison only after she received the letter). Mrs. Bixby continues to be a mysterious figure in the story about the letter.
Mrs. Bixby is said to have destroyed the letter shortly after receiving it, which would be consistent with her alleged Copperhead sympathies. Certainly the original letter sent to her has been lost. However, there is in common circulation a lithographic reproduction of the letter of unknown origin. This copy could suggest that the letter's destruction was not immediate or that it was made from a forgery. The copy's existence has kept some hopes alive that the original may still exist, perhaps now forgotten in a collection somewhere. Apart from historical interest in the original there is also interest in the monetary value of such a find, with recent estimates (as of 2009) saying it could be worth millions of dollars. The autograph dealer Charles Hamilton and Chris Coover of Christie's auction house receive numerous false original Bixby letters every year.
Hamilton examined the facsimile of the Bixby letter and concluded that it was copied from a poorly executed forgery, citing elements of its construction incorrect for Lincoln's era as well as apparent pencil markings that were traced in pen. John Hay, whose name is heard frequently in authorship debates, demonstrated that he could ably mimic Lincoln's handwriting, and Robert Todd Lincoln too recalled that his father's handwriting was simple to imitate. However, Hay believed the copy to have been made from a "very ingenious forgery", and Hamilton's arguments centered on factors other than handwriting in determining it as a fake.
Starting in the early 1900s, Americans popularly believed that the original letter, or a copy of the original, could be found in Brasenose College at the University of Oxford on display in a place of honor above other great works in the English language. When the Lincoln scholar F. Lauriston Bullard investigated this claim in 1925, he instead found that the college had never heard of the Bixby letter and did not even have a copy, let alone the original. Despite this conclusion, the tale continues to appear in popular media from time to time.
In 2008, a Dallas museum found a document in its archives that may be an authentic, handwritten government copy of the letter. The Dallas Historical Society is having the document appraised. According to Alan Olson, curator for the Society, the paper and ink appear authentic to the Civil War era. Some Lincoln experts doubted the authenticity of the document, citing the large circulation of copies distributed since the 1890s and the unlikelihood of an official copy being made of such a letter.
For many years scholars have engaged in on-going debate regarding whether the Bixby letter was written by Lincoln himself or by his assistant private secretary, John Hay. Most Lincoln experts believe that the president personally wrote the letter. The arguments in favor of Hay involve no hard proof, but rather several factors hinting that Lincoln might have delegated the task to Hay, who might have explicitly claimed authorship.
One of the first arguments to emerge is the possibility that Hay claimed to have written the letter. Associates recounted that he claimed in numerous conversations to have been the author of the letter, but these accounts have been dismissed as second-hand recollections. Associated with this argument is one of Hay's scrapbooks that contained a copy of the letter. These scrapbooks largely — but not exclusively — contain writings by Hay. Others note that he also kept extensive collections about Lincoln, suggesting that this is not proof of a first-hand claim of authorship.
Another factor involves Lincoln's letter writing habits, especially in November 1864 when the Bixby letter was composed. Hay said to William Herndon, Lincoln's former law partner and later biographer, that Lincoln read very few of the letters that were sent to him, but he still wrote about a half-dozen letters a week. November 1864 happened to be a busy month for Lincoln though, with Hay writing in a letter that very month noting the president's lack of time to engage in correspondence.
Finally the wording of the letter has been argued by both sides as indicative of the true author. Lincoln supporters cite works, such as the Gettysburg Address and the Farewell Address, as similar examples of his highly regarded style. Others have countered that Hay wrote pieces that compare favorably to the Bixby letter, and specifically highlight words and phrases in the letter that appear more frequently in the writings of the secretary. The most telling example may be the word beguile, which appears 30 times in the works of Hay and, excepting the Bixby letter, not once in the collected works of Lincoln. This has been countered as not proving anything, and the actual usage of the word beguile in the letter seems more in line with the "to divert" meaning than the "to charm" sense that Hay frequently employed.
An extract, "the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom", adorns the statue of Lady Columbia in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. The letter is reprinted in full on a plaque in a memorial garden at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in Southern California.
The letter is frequently mentioned in America in relation to the topic of siblings going to war, such as when discussing the Sullivan brothers, the Niland brothers, the Borgstrom brothers, and the Sole Survivor Policy of the United States military.
The 1998 war film Saving Private Ryan dramatized the tragedy of three out of four brothers dying in war, motivating a dangerous mission to find the youngest and last surviving brother missing in France after D-Day. In the film, General George Marshall (played by Harve Presnell) reads the Bixby letter to his officers before giving the order to find that brother, Private Ryan, and send him home.
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